In this report we present the alignment of one of the most conserved segments (Exo III) of the 3'-5' exonuclease domain in 39 DNA polymerase sequences, including prokaryotic and eukaryotic enzymes. Site-directed substitutions of the two most conserved residues, which form the Exo III motif Tyr-(X)3-Asp of phi 29 DNA polymerase, did not affect single-stranded DNA binding, DNA polymerization, processivity or protein-primed initiation. In contrast, substitution of the highly conserved Tyr residue by Phe or Cys decreased the 3'-5' exonuclease activity to 7.5 and 4.1%, respectively, of the wild-type activity. Change of the highly conserved Asp residue into Ala resulted in almost complete inactivation (0.1%) of the 3'-5' exonuclease. In accordance with the contribution of the 3'-5' exonuclease to the fidelity of DNA replication, the three mutations in the Exo III motif (Y165F, Y165C and D169A) produced enzymes with an increased frequency of misinsertion and extension of DNA polymerization errors. Surprisingly, the three mutations in the Exo III motif strongly decreased (80- to 220-fold) the ability to replicate phi 29 DNA, this behaviour being due to a defect in the strand displacement activity, an intrinsic property of phi 29 DNA polymerase required for this process. Taking these results into account, we propose that the strand displacement activity of phi 29 DNA polymerase resides in the N-terminal domain, probably overlapping with the 3'-5' exonuclease active site.